Saturday, August 14, 2010
Arguing With Scripture
How might a first-century Christian have heard or understood Paul's argument as he cited the Jewish Scriptures (OT)? This is a particularly relevant question in light of the fact that all of Paul's churches were outside of the land of Israel, often heavily populated by gentiles with very little familiarity with the OT and that Paul quotes the Jewish Scriptures with marked frequency. Most treatments of Paul's use of the OT focus almost exclusively on Paul and his theology. Rarely does one ask what rhetorical affects these quotations were intended to evoke or what unintended affects they may have had. Christopher Stanley seeks to address precisely these issues in his most recent publication, Arguing with Scripture: The Rhetoric of Quotations in the Letters of Paul.
The central question of Stanley's book is, "Why did Paul [. . .] quote so often from the Jewish Scriptures when writing to predominantly illiterate Gentile audiences who would have been unable to read the Biblical text for themselves?" (x). He betrays some obvious assumptions in the question‒ most glaringly that gentiles would have been unable to read the Biblical texts. There are two assumptions, or insights, from which Stanley developed the book. First, a "configurational" model of rhetoric ought to be able to measure the effectiveness of Paul's citations. Second, the historical reality of widespread illiteracy in the ancient world ought to caution against assuming that Paul's audiences had much, if any, access to the scriptures. Stanley's conclusion is that Paul mainly used scripture to legitimize his authority among churches that questioned him and that he did so with varying degrees of success.
Stanley reaches his conclusion in a two part argument. In part one he lays out his rhetorical approach to evaluating Paul's use of the OT in four chapters. This first part is concerned exclusively with methodolog. The second part is composed of four case studies of his methodology and conclusions derived. Part two evaluates some of Paul's OT citations in 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians and Romans. The goal of these case studies is to understand Paul's use of the OT from the perspective of his audience and answer whether or not he was effective in using OT quotations. It is time to unpack Stanley's methodology outlined in part one.
Chapter one develops a "configurational" model of rhetoric based on the work of Eugene E. White. White argues that rhetoric ought to be measurable and that since all rhetoric is situational the criteria of evaluation must be "configurational" ‒ that is the criteria of evaluation are configured "in relation to other events and their developments" (The Context of Human Discourse, 12). It sounds complicated but it isn't. Basically, since all rhetoric is prompted by a situation it ought to be measured accordingly. So a politician speaks at a fundraising event differently than at a campaign event or a preacher speaks differently on a Sunday morning than at a funeral. How these rhetorical acts are measured in effectiveness cannot be dependent on some arbitrary standard. Instead, the standard must be "configured" by the rhetorical situation that that prompts the rhetorical act. So a preacher must be measured by the standards of a funeral at a funeral and a Sunday morning sermon on a Sunday morning. It is clear that rhetoric, according to White, is chiefly measurable by the audience's response. "The effective communicator is one who takes full account of the capabilities and likely responses of the audience within a given rhetorical context" (19). Measuring Paul's effectiveness in using quotation depends on how his audience heard them.
Having established a rhetorical model Stanley moves to literary theory since Paul's letters are both oral rhetoric and literary rhetoric. Drawing from the "Speech-Act Theory" Stanley ends up endorsing most strongly the work of Gillian Lane-Mercier. She is a postmodern literary theorist who describes the act of quotation as essentially "a covert attempt by the quoting author to assert power over both the source text and the audience" (34). Quotation is thus a form of domination and manipulation (35) which allows us to "look beyond the apparent innocence of Paul's appeals to Scripture in order to ask about his underlying motives" (36‒37). Stanely sees Paul using the OT primarily to exercise his authority over people ignorant of the Biblical text but willing to submit to it.
Chapter three is the most polemical toward other treatments of Paul's quotations. Stanley is critical of scholarship that has worked under nine assumptions that he suggests are mostly or completely false. All of these assumptions revolve around access to the Scriptures. Based on literacy rates Stanley argues that most of the people in Paul's churches did not have access to the scriptures at all and the ones that could read did not have access to the biblical texts due to expense and the lack of physical evidence indicating otherwise. According to Stanley, these false assumptions must be thrown out in order to evaluate Paul's use of the OT. Despite the fact that Stanley is fairly convinced almost no one had access to the scriptures he cedes to the possibility that Paul's recipients were composed of an eclectic audience (60‒61).
Assuming varying levels of competence in the Scriptures, chapter four sets out to describe a methodology for analyzing Paul's quotations. This amounts to reading Paul's letters from three different perspectives. First, the "informed audience" represents "a person who knows the original context of every one of Paul's quotations and is willing to engage in critical dialog with Paul about his handling of the biblical text" (68). Second, the "competent audience" is composed of people who know "just enough of the Jewish Scriptures to grasp the point of Paul's quotations in their current rhetorical context" (68). Third, the "minimal audience," which Stanley thinks makes up the majority of Paul's churches, consists of those "with little specific knowledge about the content of the Jewish scriptures" usually "illiterate Gentiles" (69). From this method Stanley approaches examples of citation in the case studies of part two (chapters five through nine).
Rather than critique each of Stanley's case studies it is better to evaluate his methodology. It must be observed, first of all, that Stanley has done much to bring methodological clarity to analysis of Paul's use of the OT. Also, he has brought much needed perspective to the complexity of quotation and what it does to an audience, not just how it is used by an author. Still, Stanley's questions will probably outlive his answers which have numerous problems.
The very first assumption of scholarly approach to Paul's citation of the OT that Stanley critiques is the belief that "Paul's audiences acknowledged the authority of the Jewish Scriptures as a source of truth and a guide for Christian conduct" (40 emphasis original). Stanley points out that Jewish scripture was hardly revered in the wider world of the first century. This is a major issue that Stanley never really addresses. In fact, it could undermine his whole project and essentially shows that he hasn't come close to answering the very question he suggests frames his whole argument. Why would Gentiles listen to the Jewish Scriptures as authoritative words from God? If they did not respect the Jewish Scriptures why would Paul appeal to them so frequently and with so much importance? Stanley never adequately addresses these important questions.
Stanley assumes a stance of suspicion towards Paul's use of the OT. This suspicion is based on the assumption that Paul uses the OT as a grasp for power. He describes quotations in Foucaultian language in multiple places suggesting, "even quotations that look like innocent ornamental devices can be heavily 'power coded' when taken from an authoritative source" (14, cf. 34‒37), or more pointedly, "Paul assumed a stance of social and ideological dominance/power over his intended audience, a dominance for which he claimed divine support" (171). So, Scripture in Paul's hands is little more than a "weapon," one that "he did not hesitate to deploy [. . .] when he felt that it would advance his cause" (181). This pomo reading of Paul's citation of the OT is an ideologically charged argument that sounds like a poor description of the author of 1 Corinthians. Scripture citation does have rhetorical effects but assuming the intentions behind the rhetoric are always about domination is unwarranted.
Stanley's book is an important step forward in moving rhetorical analysis beyond structural analysis. Unfortunately, it is almost entirely conjectural to read Paul's writing from the perspective of the audiences about whom we know very little. The mere fact that Stanley is forced to create categories of readers and then assume their responses to Paul's arguments based on no evidence at all is indicative of the fact that this approach can easily become little more than a reader-response guessing game. Arguing with Scripture ought to be a book that forces interpreters to wrestle with the historical realities of widespread illiteracy and the "power" of books and citation. It does not, however, manage to answer the very important question it raises.